With great privilege comes great responsibility. We have the wonderful opportunity to travel and see the world and it is much more accessible than ever before, but it also means that we need to be conscious as we travel. We need to do as much as possible to lighten our footprint and protect the places that we visit. If we don’t, we may lose some of our most enchanting and magical destinations.
As I travel I have already seen the impacts of plastic pollution on some of the world’s most beautiful places. With just a little bit of consciousness and few small habit changes, you can dramatically change the impact of your travel.
Minimize travel time and where possible take the train.
There is an increase in the concept of “slow living” and with that comes the idea of “slow travel.” However, we are also living in an era where people have less time than they have ever had, so with that in mind, we say – take the train when you can. According to the International Energy Agency and the International Union of Railways, drivers account for 71% of transportation carbon emissions, 14.3% for shipping, 12.3% aviation and 1.8% for rail. Taking the train is an excellent experience and personally my favorite form of transportation aside from maybe a tuk-tuk for the unique experience that it is.
Europe is always a great place to take trains because they are so accessible and connect just about everything on the continent, but you really get to see a ton of the countryside as you make your way across the continent. Eurostar, carbon-neutral, high-speed train is probably your best option in the region.
We have taken the train in Japan and China and it is an exceptional experience – they have really mastered high-speed train travel and it is far more convenient than dealing with an airport. My personal dream train trip is to travel across Canada.
Since train travel isn’t always an option due to access or time, try to consider direct flights and select airlines that either offset their pollution already or use sustainable aviation biofuel—like United, Qantas and KLM. You can also offset your airline miles on your own. It isn’t a perfect system, but the goal isn’t perfection. It is consciousness around the fact that every time you board that plane, you are contributing to environmental pollution.
Walk, ride a bike or use local transportation.
When you get to a new place, check out the local transportation options. Often the bus or subway system will be super clean, convenient and easier to navigate in foreign lands than trying to hand signal to a cab driver to explain where you want to go. We always walk a ton or ride bikes when we are in cities and it is a great way to see the neighborhoods, explore parks and find off-the-beaten path spots. The most difficult bike exploration we ever did was in San Francisco because the hills there are crazy! When you do need to rent a car, which happens in a lot of different places, always look for small, fuel efficient options or electric vehicles if possible.
Learn about local customs and communities.
Before you leave on a trip, take a little bit of time to learn about where you are going. You can get information from a great guidebook, a travel-focused or historical novel, your favorite travel blogs, or just a friend who grew up there. Doing this little bit of research ahead of time will give you some great insight on appropriate behavior, customs to be aware of, proper dress codes, ways of showing respect for local cultures, etc.
When we travel, we seek out what I now coin “conscious stays,” but really they are usually small boutique hotels or eco-lodges that focus on implementing sustainable practices to lessen their environmental impact, but they also always offer excursions or volunteer opportunities within their local communities. These programs are always a great way to learn a ton about the local culture and to have some interactions and first-hand insight into how people live wherever you are. They can range from learning how locals collect food to how artisans produce textiles or other small goods for purchase.
Always try to support local artisans, local entrepreneurs and tour guides as you travel. When I first started traveling I was a super budget backpacker. We could go weeks on end with very little money, but most of time we also had a very minimal positive impact on the places we were visiting. So many countries rely heavily on tourism for their economy and we were not willing to hand over money for tours – we could do it ourselves, plus we often felt prices were unreasonable when in reality they were far less than anything similar we could find at home. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the travel industry supplies 10 percent of the world’s jobs – not a bad idea to support that.
Nicaragua is feeling the pain right now with a significant decrease in tourism – restaurants, hotels and tour companies have closed or laid off local employees. They are suffering in huge ways since their tourism dropped off after the political instability that started in April.
Additionally by supporting artisans, tour guides and other local small businesses as you travel, you can “give back” in a proper way. While it sometimes seems nice to bring unused clothing, extra school supplies or medical supplies and just give them away in communities of need, this can often have unintended consequences. If you do want to bring things to donate, it is always best to give them to specific organization in need that are well-versed on local customs and needs and can distribute the good properly. Pack for a Purpose is a great way do a little extra good on your next vacation.
Pick Sustainable Hotels and Conscious Eco-Lodges.
One of my favorite things to save to my Pinterest board or list out in my Evernote lists are sustainable hotels and getaways. I honestly cannot believe how many excellent ones there are now and how many new ones there are popping up every day.
My current dream stay is Song Saa in Cambodia – they have proven it is possible to link true consciousness and luxury. The next two I would also love to visit are Mashpi Lodge in Ecuador and The Other Side in the Bahamas. But seriously the list is never-ending. A new hotel opening in Central America in 2019 just came on my radar, so you will have to stay tuned to see if I get there this Spring!
Here are the three pillars to look for in a hotel in order to avoid greenwashing:
Environmental Responsibility/Minimizing Impact
Community involvement and local support
Protection of Natural and cultural heritage
Most major hotel groups that claim LEED certifications or sustainable practices can come up in one or two of the above categories, but it is usually the smaller boutiques and eco-lodges that truly check off all of the boxes.
Choose bungee jumping over skydiving – both are rad, one is better for the environment. But really consider the impacts and always try to think if there is a lighter footprint or more sustainable option. If you are looking into boating, consider sailing over a power boat. Sign up for hiking trips and biking tours over ATV tours. There are so many activities that you can select that have little to no environmental impact.
Voluntourism is another option for traveling more responsibly. This is an idea where your trip is fully focused on giving back or supporting an organization. This summer I ran a one week soccer camp in Botswana in partnership with Elephants for Africa. My entire week consisted of playing soccer on a dirt field and teaching conservation lessons to the local community. Between playing soccer, walking to and from work and around the village and camping, that week was probably the least impact I’ve had on the planet all year. There are a ton of volunteer opportunities around the world. Just make sure that whatever you sign-up for that you either work directly with the NGO of your choosing or check that the tour company has partnered with a reputable NGO.
Say no to plastic any time you can.
I am still not perfect about this when I travel, but it is something to always keep in the back of your mind. You can travel with reusable shopping bags, reusable water bottles, steel or bamboo straws and utensils and you should be able to tackle any situation.
Single use plastics have only been around for many 6 decades and yet we have created 8.3 billion metric tons. Only 9% of plastic is actually recycled. Of all plastic waste, the worst offender is the plastic water bottle. To combat this we always travel with our Hydroflask water bottles because they work for both hot and cold beverages. You can have them fill them up on planes, in a coffee shop or any fast food restaurant.
Bring your good habits from home with you.
Just because you are staying in a nice place, doesn’t mean you should throw out all your good habits. Just as you would shower over taking a bath, turn your lights and televisions off when you leave the house, you can continue these on vacation as well. A luxury hotel guest uses nearly 1,800 liters of water per night. That is insane.
For some reason we seem to be more conscious at home when we actually see our electric or water bill, but you can minimize your water and electricity use even if hotels don’t charge based on your energy and water consumption.
I also find that most hotels set the air-conditioners to absurdly low temperatures, so try to remember to turn it up when you leave the room just as you would when you leave the house. You can take it up a notch by closing the blinds or the curtains to minimize heat gain. And please, do not leave your air-conditioner blasting and your balcony doors open.
Always support state parks, nature reserves and national parks. These programs protect the natural space we need to sustain life on this planet. Adhere to “leave no trace” principles. Whatever you bring with you, take away with you and always try to pick up trash when hiking or visiting a beach.
Instagrammer Jackson Groves (@Jackson.groves) has implemented a group called the Adventure Bag movement (@adventurebagcrew) where for each adventure you go on, you pick up at least one full bag of trash. He came up with it as a small token of appreciation for being able to travel and experience the beauty of nature around the world. You should also give it a try!
This means it is time to start visiting conservation sanctuaries and refuges over places that exploit animals for tourism purposes. Sorry guys, no elephant riding, walking with lions, monkey shows or circuses. If you are going to visit a place that involves interacting with wild animals, do a ton of research ahead of time. Ensure that you are going somewhere that actually supports animals, whether that is rehabilitating them or just protecting them and make sure they aren’t taking animals from the wild for tourism purposes.
Becoming more thoughtful and conscious is a process for all of us. We have all done something we are not proud of. I have both ridden an elephant in India and held a baby lion in South Africa. While the elephant is something I am completely ashamed of, I interacted with the lion cubs when I was working Bloemfontein. I visited Ashia Cheetah Experience, a cheetah breeding non-profit organization working to aid in the conservation of Cheetahs and raise awareness on the vulnerability of South Africa animals. They do not technically offer any interactions with the animals, it was just fortunate timing because it was just two of us in our tour group so we got to visit one of the cheetahs being rehabilitated and ended up meeting their new lions cubs. The cubs were kept in a rehabilitation center away from visitors and I honestly cannot remember why we got to see them, but we did.
A final note in the wildlife category is this: never buy wildlife products or anything that supports the industry. We are losing precious species in droves and need to do everything we can to keep them safe and on this planet. I can assure you, you will gain much more value from going on a safari or a game drive than you will purchasing a trinket made from ivory.
As I tried to make clear as I worked through each of these, this is definitely a work in progress for anyone, even the most practiced, sustainable traveler. The next trip you take doesn’t have to check off all 10 of these recommendations, but you are a rock star if it does. I put this together merely as a matter of raising awareness and in hopes that you will try to incorporate some of these practices as you travel. Let me know what you think in the comments below. Are there any that you struggle with the most?